NATO’s Allied Command Transformation held the Alliance Warfare Development Conference in Norfolk, Virginia, from December 6 – 8. The Alliance Warfare Development Conference is an annual event for military and civilian decision-makers to collaborate on warfare development.
The conference investigates the future of Allied warfare development in a dynamic and dangerous new security environment. The 30 Allies protecting more than one billion citizens must remain committed to adapting to strategic challenges that we can anticipate but not predict, whether that is 20 minutes or 20 years into the future.
NATO has always been forward-looking, creative, and adaptive and has a solid history of successful operations on four continents. But today, the Alliance requires agile processes and a culture of innovation to quickly develop and field tools and techniques to address emerging threats across ever-diversifying environments and domains. How NATO meets that challenge is the focus of the Alliance Warfare Development Conference.
It is a truism that armies tend to fight the last war, adapting slowly if at all to dynamic conditions. Extrapolating current trends forward in time is similarly a poor tool for planning and developing new warfighting capabilities. We can anticipate how a warmer planet or disruptive new technologies may affect the future of warfare but predicting what that warfare will look like is simply guesswork.
Looking at the nature of modern warfare is more informative, noting the challenge of drawing definitive conclusions whilst a conflict is ongoing. It is instructive to examine the Russian invasion of Ukraine and draw lessons broader than tactics. We are witnessing two very different combatants respond in real time to a dynamic environment, an agile adversary, and the rapid operationalization of new technologies.
In other words, the decisive factor of modern warfare is not only the army we bring to the fight but how quickly we can adapt that army with its capabilities to rapid changes on the battlefield. That has important implications for how the Allies organize, plan, train, and equip their warfighters. The model of top-down capability requirements and contracts is obsolete, at least for digital. The Alliance needs to consider how its defense base should be less like a traditional car maker and more like an app developer.
Warfare development already presents enough challenges to NATO. While its combined numerical strength is unrivaled, its ability to operate effectively together under unknown future conditions depends heavily on ensuring digital interoperability.
NATO’s military standards for member states are very high. But NATO still must accommodate differences in capabilities across the Alliance. For example, defence capabilities of small, land-locked, or former Warsaw Pact countries will be different from those of large nations with strategic weapons and expeditionary forces. Forging member countries’ capacity into an effective and interoperable whole is one of the primary objectives for NATO warfare development.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed the Euro-Atlantic security environment. Vladimir Putin’s war effort is by no means over—he has yet to wield the full spectrum of Russian military capabilities or to order a general mobilization. Several early observations for Allied warfare development have already emerged from this conflict. Russian forces have struggled against a more creative and adaptive defence. Ukraine has successfully used agile command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance apps, and small and effective portable weapons to destroy Russian armour and aircraft. Ukrainians have also been very creative in reusing captured Russian material.
Cheap unmanned drones, hypersonic missiles, aerial loitering munitions, and seamless connectivity present new threats to tanks, ships, and assembly areas. Long-range, precision-guided artillery can strike deep in the enemy’s rear, disrupting command and supply. Critical civilian and dual-use infrastructure are extremely vulnerable targets with an immediate impact on the wartime population. While Russia’s vaunted disinformation strategy has to some extent been thwarted in some information environments, the expanding concept of cognitive warfare should worry everyone.
All of this is clear in retrospect. But the initial “lesson” experts expected at the beginning of the invasion in February was very different: almost every observer believed Ukraine’s defense would collapse in days. So, it is very likely the real lesson learned here is that we do not predict the future very well. The bottom line is that we must be ready to adapt quickly to new weapons, tactics, and environments as they emerge as well as be prepared to take commensurate risks against the threat.
This has important implications for the Allies. Dynamic adaptation requires an agile technology and industrial sector that must be ready to develop, test, and field new systems quickly in response to emerging and disruptive technologies. Data sharing and exploitation must scale to support rapid decision-making from the political to the tactical level. NATO people and organizations, from soldiers and citizens to generals and prime ministers, must be prepared, flexible, and persistently adaptive in response to rapid changes in the security environment. NATO must plan, equip, and train to fight in dynamic conditions.
In short, the North Atlantic Alliance must prepare for the unexpected, whether that comes 20 minutes into the future or 20 years from now. The Alliance Warfare Development Conference is a vehicle to deliver that preparation. Our collective security depends on it.